ANZSOG-funded research provides a voice for Indigenous public sector leaders

Image of books stacked in a cupboard.
  • Published Date: 17 July 2019

Indigenous public servants in Queensland and Canada’s British Columbia province face difficulties in dealing with institutionalised racism, but can be the key to developing innovative and effective policy by acting as a bridge between governments and Indigenous communities, a new book by ANZSOG Deputy Dean, Associate Professor Catherine Althaus and Griffith University Professor Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh has found.

This ‘bridging’ role informs the book’s title, Leading from Between. Indigenous public servants face a unique challenge in seeking to combine their roles as public servants, with a duty to serve government, and their roles as Indigenous peoples and leaders, with responsibilities to serve their communities.

The two researchers have been working for nearly a decade with Indigenous public servants across Queensland and Canada’s British Columbia province, documenting their experiences and stories and analysing the form and function of Indigenous public service leadership as unique, especially in meeting the demands of the modern public service.

Full findings from their research will be published by McGill Queens University Press in a book titled Leading from Between: Indigenous Participation and Leadership in the Public Service.

“This book has been an incredible journey of learning for us and we know that it will be the same for those who read it,” said Associate Professor Althaus.

“For Indigenous public servants the perspectives and experiences will be familiar, but having them documented is powerful. It provides an opportunity to share their insights as a community of First Peoples practitioners from different parts of the globe, who share a remarkably consistent set of conceptual and operational understandings of leadership.

“For non-Indigenous readers, we can guarantee that many of these stories will be thought-provoking and sometimes shocking.

“We have had the privilege to witness the diverse and significant contributions of Indigenous public servants. We’ve also learned of the institutionalised racism that continues to exist and which detracts from the abilities of First Peoples to give effect to positive change in how we think about and act as public officials working for the benefit of communities. The time is ripe for everyone to sit up and take notice of how Indigenous public servants do things differently and with beneficial impacts for their communities and the public service.”

Professor O’Faircheallaigh was excited by the exploration of how Indigenous participation and leadership changes policy creation and implementation.

“The challenge that Indigenous leadership throws down to public services is to work towards a more personalised and responsive bureaucracy. Indigenous public servants are key to helping governments work authentically with communities of all shapes and sizes, Indigenous and non-Indigenous,” he said.

“The leadership of Indigenous public servants encourages us to think more about how to prioritise relationships with, in and through communities, as key to the fabric of public service. Indigenous public servants often act as bridges between different worlds, facilitating knowledge, developing new ideas and innovation, giving voice, mobilising resources, giving and generating respect, providing role modelling.”

The book explores the tension Indigenous public servants feel regarding employment levels in the public service. Too often, it is just expected that everyone wants to rise to the top of a hierarchy to give effect to positive change. This is not always how Indigenous public servants approach their work.

As the book argues: “a substantial number of interviewees indicated that they refrain from seeking advancement into senior executive roles. Their reasons for doing so involved a belief that accepting such roles would reduce their ability to challenge government policy; would tend to deprive them of opportunities for community engagement; and would reduce their ability to achieve concrete gains, which some saw as easier to achieve by “flying under the radar” rather than by occupying senior, high-profile positions. Other interviewees, in contrast, felt it is impossible to have a significant impact in hierarchical organisations except from senior executive positions”.

The authors believe the book can be an important source of validation and support for Indigenous public servants facing the challenges of ‘leading from between’.

One research participant said the book had cemented their commitment to public service: “2018 was probably the hardest time I have ever experienced in the public service and I questioned myself about whether I wanted to continue. Reading your research project and reviewing my comments has steadied and strengthened my resolve, reminding me of why I entered the service and resetting my compass. I think when any person faces what I have faced in the last year, your book will not only remind people but give them the second wind they need.”

According to the authors of Leading from Between, the ability to listen to the firsthand perspectives of Indigenous public servants is something that could generate immense positive change in Australia and Canada.

“It is certainly the case that if the vision of leadership articulated by our research participants was adopted throughout the public services of the two countries the impact would, over time, be profound. However, this possibility will not be realised without fundamental change not only in the way in which public services and governments view Indigenous public servants, but also in the way governments relate to Indigenous communities. We hope that, by giving voice to Indigenous public servants in British Columbia and Queensland, we have increased the prospect that such fundamental change can occur.”Leading from Between: Indigenous Participation and Leadership in the Public Service is available on pre-order from McGill Queens University Press.